June 21, 2018 —
A new Center for Disease Control and Prevention report reveals that the national suicide rate has risen by nearly 30 percent between 1999 and 2016. There were 45,000 suicides in 2016, more than deaths by motor vehicle accidents or kidney disease. Along with the opioid crisis, and other so-called “deaths of despair,” increased suicides are responsible for the recent decline in U.S. life expectancy.
No demographic is more afflicted by suicide than veterans. Veterans made up about 18 percent of adult suicides but represent about 8.5 percent of the U.S. adult population. Roughly 20 veterans take their own lives each day.
Experts attribute the epidemic of veteran suicides largely to their increased affliction with posttraumatic stress (PTS) and traumatic brain injury (TBI) — the signature yet invisible wounds of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. These mental health conditions are heavily correlated with suicide. And with about 400,000 returning veterans estimated to have PTS or TBI, it’s unlikely this suicide rate will decrease absent intervention.
But what can be done to help prevent vets and the growing number of Americans suffering from mental illness from taking their own lives? This is a complex problem with no easy solution. But emerging anecdotal and scientific research suggests that part of the answer may lie with an increased use of trained service dogs.
As any dog owner can tell you, dogs can make life worth living. For service dogs, this is especially true. They are trained to address the social, biological and psychological symptoms of often debilitating mental health conditions. In practice, this means creating space around their owners to reduce anxiety, waking them up from nightmares, retrieving medicine bottles, and even giving hugs to ground a veteran whose stress may be escalating.
A Purdue University study released this spring compared veterans coping with PTS who had a service dog with those who didn’t. Results showed that veterans with a service dog scored higher on a variety of mental health and emotional well-being metrics, including lessened symptoms of PTS and depression.
Interaction with dogs has been shown to boost oxytocin, relieve stress, and stimulate nurturing responses. Dogs are also a great excuse to get out of the house. A 2009 survey distributed by the U.S. military found that four-in-five vets with PTS reported their symptoms diminished after being paired with a service dog.
Unfortunately, waiting lists for veterans in need of service dogs are long. The process is time-consuming and expensive, costing at least $20,000 per dog. Yet at the same time an estimated 670,000 dogs are euthanizedin U.S. animal shelters each year.
Recognizing this opportunity to help both veterans and shelter dogs, American Humane started the Shelter to Service program, which trains shelter dogs to become service dogs and provides them to veterans diagnosed with PTS and TBI free of charge. The program has its own canine training center where dogs are trained to meet third-party service dog standards.
“Lex has given me a new lease on life, because I am able to go out in public,” said veteran Chris Ellis, whose PTS prevents him from feeling comfortable in crowded places. After being paired with Lex through the Shelter to Service program, he said there’s been “a huge change.” In addition to helping him feel more at-ease in public, Lex has allowed Chris to sleep more at night. Fellow program participant and veteran John Gerula explains how, if he begins to get agitated, his service dog Oliver “leans up against my leg to comfort me”. Oliver is trained to perform this task, called “grounding”, if he senses John’s anxiety.
Such stories and surrounding research demonstrate that service dogs are part of a broader solution to address the nation’s suicide rate — especially among veterans. Mental health professionals should recognize this and begin recommending their use as a legitimate alternative for those struggling with mental health issues. Doing so can save lives on both ends of the leash.
Dr. Robin Ganzert is president and CEO of American Humane. Prior to joining American Humane, Dr. Ganzert served as deputy director of Philanthropic Services at The Pew Charitable Trusts in Washington, D.C.